Major happy in minors

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

And the bad news is ...

There'll be no charter flights. No room to stretch out or just play cards. No steaks or salmon on the in-flight menu. Instead, it'll be early morning lineups at ticket counters, middle seats in economy class and ginger ale and peanuts. Mmm. Yum.

Then there's the bus travel. Not just hops to and from the airport, hotel and arena. Uh-uh. This is the AHL, and life on The Lung is part of the deal during an 80-game schedule.

SIMPLE PLEASURES

As a bonus, Jarret Stoll, who got his first taste of NHL high life last season as a rookie with the Edmonton Oilers, will re-visit the simple pleasures of the minor leagues for about one-tenth of what he'd make in The Show this year, when he pulls on a uniform with the Edmonton Road Runners.

It's enough to make your average puck millionaire player hiss and moan over the loss of entitlement and perks that come with playing in the NHL, but Stoll isn't an average kind of guy.

Let's get started already.

"I'm happy about it," insists Stoll, who will be the only full-time member of last season's Oilers roster to open training camp with the Road Runners at Rexall Place tomorrow.

IMPROVE

"It's going to be a good opportunity for me to improve my game and I'm looking forward to it."

Stoll, 24, paid his dues and honed his skills in the minors with Hamilton in 2002-03, tallying 54 points in 76 games in his first pro season. He added 13 more points in playoffs as the Bulldogs rolled to the Calder Cup final, losing to Houston in seven games.

Stoll returns to the minors now despite playing 68 games with the Oilers last season because he's on an entry-level contract and can be sent to the AHL without clearing waivers.

He'll be paid $65,000 in salary instead of the $600,000 he'd have earned before owners slapped padlocks on the rinks. Goodbye, Morton's. Hello, Taco Bell.

"As a young guy, you can't miss a whole year or whatever and just scrimmage with your buddies," Stoll said.

"You've got to play. Last season and the season before, I think I took some steps forward. If I sat out this year, it would be like taking a couple steps back."

For Stoll, a young man with his head screwed on straight, it's all about playing the game, not the superfluous frills that come with it at the big league level.

And for a developing, young player, the AHL is the way to go. It's closer in every way to the NHL model than, say, playing a comfy schedule for $200,000, an apartment and all of the cheese you can eat in Switzerland.

THE FINAL SAY

"The team has final say, but I could've looked somewhere else," Stoll said of employment opportunities in Europe. "That was my last option. I wanted to play in the AHL.

"It's good hockey and it will get better with the young players who've been sent down. The travel is tough and it's 80 games, so it's close to a full NHL schedule. That part is a positive."

Road Runners coach Geoff Ward knows all about Stoll. Ward had him in Hamilton and expects big things this season.

"Jarret's a natural leader," said Ward, who'll have 35 players on the ice when camp opens tomorrow.

"That's the first thing we noticed about him a couple of years ago.

"He's got the opportunity to be a leader again. When he showed up as a rookie two years ago, he looked like a pro already in terms of taking pride in his performance and preparation."

Likewise, Oilers GM Kevin Lowe sees an opportunity for Stoll to continue to develop.

A SMART PLAYER

"He's a smart player," Lowe said. "He can continue to excel defensively, but he can use this year to grow and build himself up strength-wise. He can play in more prime situations. He hasn't had that opportunity in the NHL so far."

Stoll isn't beefing about the salary and cushy comforts that'll be lost during the NHL lockout. Whenever Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow finish dividing up the take, Stoll will be ready.

"Coming into Hamilton my first year of pro, I found out it was a huge step from junior," said Stoll, who won a Memorial Cup as captain of the Kootenay Ice. "I learned a lot.

"I can fine-tune every part of my game. I can get quicker. I can play in all situations. When this lockout is over, I can be ready to go. I'm looking forward to this. I want to get going."


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